Tell me, what do university fees have to do with Israel?

By Ben Carroll, April 30, 2012

At the NUS Conference I was once again astounded by the attention given to the Israeli-Palestinian debate. For three days numerous students wore stickers calling for a boycott of Israeli goods, while candidates for the NUS executive committee mentioned the "siege on Gaza" and the "apartheid state that is Israel" in their speeches. The Socialist Workers Party stand was littered with pamphlets titled "Israeli, Nakba and the Occupation".

Now let me clarify before you read on that I have no objections to the Palestinian cause, in fact I am very sympathetic to them, given my interest in the region and my desire to see peace. I am not ignorant of the problems Palestinians face on a daily basis, ranging from human rights abuses to issues with gaining work visas. I support the creation of an independent Palestinian state and have spoken to Israelis and Palestinians from all walks of life. Finally, I have no problem with people who have a passion and strong set of beliefs that they look to live by.

What I do not understand is this: why the problems in the Middle East, and in particular the Palestinian cause, continually gain so much attention within the arena of student politics. Are British students unaware of the other pressing issues that the world faces?

Do they not warrant similar, if not more, attention by such a large group of politically active students? I saw no mention of human rights abuses in China. I was never told of the problems that women in Saudi Arabia face. No one discussed the phone hacking scandal or proposed that campus shops boycott News International papers.

I was never told of the vile abuses currently going on in Syria. I never heard a peep about the horrific experiences of those involved in global human trafficking. No one debated the pros and cons of the Kony 2012 initiative.

Yet I was told of experiences of everyday Palestinians and a UK-wide boycott of Eden Springs was proposed. I was lectured about the "siege on Gaza" and the continued expansion of "illegal settlements in the West Bank".

Frustrated, I pressed the issue with Tom from Sheffield, an active member of the Socialist Workers Party and a part time student. I posed a series of questions: why did he feel the way he did about Israel? What did he see as the rights and wrongs of the conflict? What did he think of the idea of land swaps as part of any future peace plan? Unsurprisingly, he knew little about the situation.

He littered his response with comments such as: "Well, you support illegal settlements", even though I told him I had previously worked with Peace Now. He asked why the Jews needed a state of their own. I replied by asking if he had read about any Jewish history over the past 2,000 years. His reply: "Well, you know, I don't know it all".

Despite his clear lack of knowledge of the issue, he continued to sit at the SWP stall offering passers-by leaflets denouncing the existence of the state of Israel.

As an International Relations student I am acutely aware of the problems within the world: ranging from global poverty and the AIDS epidemic in Africa, to the issues of post-colonialism. As a proud and liberal Jewish Zionist, I am also very aware of the situation in the Middle East. Had I gone to conference knowing little about any such issues, I imagine I would have left thinking that Israel was at the core (and perhaps even the cause) of all the problems in the world. Had I not been listening carefully, I may have even thought the increase in university fees was a result of settlement expansion in the West Bank.

So, can someone please explain why student politicians have such a fascination with the Israeli-Palestinian debate, yet overlook the numerous other problems in the world? Why should someone try to rally British students toward "liberating the Palestinians from Zionist colonial forces" when they are running for a position on the NUS executive council? Some will blame this on antisemitism, others will put it down to stupidity. Still others will try to justify it with an explanation of the plight of the Palestinians.

Equally, there will be some who will be stumped. If you too are unable to answer my question, and are as perplexed as I am, then welcome to the club.

Ben Carroll is studying international relations at St Andrews University. Follow him on Twitter here.

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Last updated: 4:42pm, April 30 2012